We’re finally doing what we probably should have done with the Beer Bracket when it began two years ago: erect a wall at the state line.
The Beer Bracket is now the Wisconsin Beer Bracket, with all 64 brews in the fermented field hailing from the Badger State.
So long, Two Hearted, you will remain a two-time runner-up, always the bridesmaid. Sorry, Sierra Nevada, Goose Island, New Belgium and Sam Adams, you’ll have to be content with huge nationwide sales.
The Beer Bracket, in which your votes advance beers through a multi-week March Madness-style tournament, has always had a Wisconsin bias.
The champions — each retired from future contention after one shining moment — both hail from Madison’s Ale Asylum: Hopalicious in the inaugural bracket and Ballistic last year.
Bell’s Two Hearted has been the only out-of-state beer to crack the final four. Last year, when out-of-state beers dominated the top seeds of two geographically focused regions, lower-seeded Wisconsin beers pulled upset after upset. Ballistic’s run began as a humble 12 seed, but it vanquished national juggernauts New Belgium Fat Tire and Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale en route to cutting down the nets in the West region.
So we’re homers. Let’s embrace it.
Going Wisconsin-only let the selection committee broaden the range of in-state offerings. Among the smaller breweries making their Beer Bracket debuts this year are Wausau’s Red Eye, Oconomowoc’s Sweet Mullets, Pembine’s Black Husky, and Titletown and Stillmank from Green Bay. Some of the newcomers aren’t household names around Madison, but they have good reputations in their necks of the woods or among the state’s beer geeks.
Like the small-conference teams who make the NCAA tournament, these beers are the scrappy underdogs who’ll be facing experienced and accomplished opponents.
The top seeds are true behemoths of Wisconsin craft beer: New Glarus Spotted Cow, which will always be the No. 1 overall seed until it wins and is retired; O’so Night Train, a two-time final four beer; Ale Asylum Bedlam, propelled to a No. 1 seed by Ale Asylum’s Beer Bracket track record and its newly statewide distribution; and Lakefront Riverwest Stein, a widely distributed Wisconsin classic that should do well among Milwaukee voters.
Another change this year is the region names are derived from the four basic ingredients in beer — malt, hops, water and yeast (sorry, no room for love) — and assigned randomly after the regions were drawn up.
One takeaway I had from building the field this year is how many solid beers this state’s brewers make. There are so many I could see being someone’s go-to beer, depending on style preference or buy-local loyalty.
This week’s beer is one of those, a Wisconsin favorite that’s been around as long as I can remember, of a style that I should turn to more often.
Style: Brown ale with a portion aged in bourbon barrels
Brewed by: Tyranena Brewing Co., just off Interstate 94 in Lake Mills
What it’s like: The world’s best-known of the style is Newcastle Brown Ale, which is a thin, watery approximation of what you’ll find in a Rocky’s Revenge glass.
Where, how much: One of the factors that earned Rocky’s its 3 seed is its wide availability. Most decent-sized grocery stores and bottle shops carry it. My six-pack was $8.99 at Riley’s Wines of the World.
The beer: Rocky’s pours a gorgeous copper-brown with dazzling ruby highlights. It has a very inviting aroma dominated by nutty malts with a slight boozy note, an almost amaretto-like combination. Each sip is dominated by caramel-toffee malts with a touch of toasty character and only a modest, slightly spicy kiss of hops. The barrel-aging influence here is subtle, with those familiar oaky vanilla notes many decibels lower than the featured malts. Rocky’s has a smooth, medium body with a surprising bitter aftertaste that builds somewhat through the glass.
Booze factor: The base beer for Rocky’s has a 5.75 percent ABV, but about half of each batch of Rocky’s is aged about eight weeks in bourbon barrels from Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky. There’s residual whiskey in those barrels, so the ABV grows slightly and unpredictably from batch to batch.
The buzz: I don’t drink brown ales very often, although I did years ago when I was just beginning to explore the craft beer landscape. These days, I’m less into malt-forward beers, and honestly a lot of brown ales are boring. Rocky’s is not that, thanks to a really solid base beer and the welcome twist from the barrel-aging.
It’s a theme that carries across Tyranena’s portfolio, which is packed with good executions of traditional styles and the occasional twist, especially in the Brewers Gone Wild series of limited releases. One of those, an imperial coffee oatmeal porter called The Devil Made Me Do It, is Tyranena’s 11th-seeded second entry in the Beer Bracket. (It’s one of 15 brewers with two beers in the field.)
Rocky’s is named after a mythical serpent that guards the waters of Rock Lake, and other local legends inspired the names of most of Tyranena’s beers. It’s those rich back stories and close-to-home reference points that help make our favorite beers often different from the “best” beers available.
And it’s why the “best” beer in the field probably won’t win the Beer Bracket. So vote your heart, and help me crown the next champion of Wisconsin beer.
Bottom line: 4 stars (out of five)